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State in hasty retreat over GM maize legalisation

Plans by the government to officially announce release of the first ever Genetically Modified (GM) maize variety in Kenya—which would have paved the way for its commercialisation—was yesterday cancelled at the last minute.

It was not immediately clear why a press conference called by the National Biosafety Authority (NBA)—the country’s biosafety regulator and that was to be addressed by the Ministry of Agriculture’s top officials—was called off. However, a source intimated to People Daily that the matter was put on hold because of its “sensitivity.”

It further emerged that other line ministries such as that of Health, which banned importation of GM products in 2012, called for wider consultations before any announcement is made.

This is contrary to an assertion by Deputy President William Ruto in August last year that various government ministries, departments and agencies concerned with biotechnology had already consulted and agreed on the necessary regulations and safety measures to be adhered to.

“Consultations over GMOs have been concluded, and the Cabinet was expected to discuss the issue before allowing GMOs in the country so that we can maximise on agricultural production, improve health services, conserve the environment and basically improve the living standards of our people,” Ruto told a congregation of scientists and policy makers at the annual Bio-Safety Conference.

He was, however, categorical the ban on importation of GM products had not been lifted. The insect pest-protected GM maize variety, the Mon810, known worldwide as Bt maize, has been on trial for close to two decades now.

Scientists say Bt maize will help farmers in Kenya increase yields by reducing damage caused by stem borers. Scientists behind the Mon810 variety also say farmers can improve yields while reducing the use of insecticide sprays, thus benefiting the environment.

According to the Agricultural Sector Development Strategy (ASDS), Kenyans depend on maize as staple food and every year, millions are threatened by hunger due to a number of constraints including insect pests. Stem borers are particularly known to reduce maize yields by an average of 13 per cent or 400,000 metric tonnes.

This is equivalent to the amount of maize imported by Kenya annually that approximately costs the taxpayer an estimated Sh7.2 billion. Scientists from Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organisation (Kalro) and their partners formally applied to the biosafety regulator for release of GMO maize that has been on trial for commercial production.

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